Tapping into Touch
By Julie Ritzer Ross
VARs looking to hit the ground running within the hospitality vertical - and reap the benefit of increased profits - would be well-served to use touch-screen sales as ammunition. The category is experiencing many new innovations on the technology front, and new applications for both restaurants and hotels are also on the horizon.
"The touch-screen market is exploding," states Bryan Griffin, vice president of operations at Advanced Business Products, an Orlando, Fla.-based VAR. Griffin says more and more of his company's customers, even small restaurant operators that traditionally have gravitated toward "standard $800 cash registers," are expressing interest in migrating to a touch-screen platform.
The VAR attributes this trend to several factors, most significantly lower hardware prices and increased ease of use. "A two-terminal system that once cost $10,000 to $12,000 can now be purchased for less than $10,000, including a few remote printers; a terminal that previously had a price of $5,000 is currently about $3,499," Griffin observes. "At the same time, the software is more menu-driven and simpler to maintain. Just as important, it requires less cross-training of employees. Someone who comes from a national restaurant chain to work at an independent restaurant can be up and running on a program within minutes, versus hours or more in the past."
A Steady Pulse
Among the most recent developments in touch screens and touch-screen operation is the introduction of proprietary acoustic pulse recognition (APR) technology by Elo TouchSystems, a unit of Tyco Electronics. APR assembly comprises a glass display overlay or other rigid substrate, with four piezoelectric transducers mounted on two diagonally opposite corners of the back surface, out of the visible area and connected via a flexible cable to a controller card. Impact that occurs when the screen is touched, or friction caused when a user drags a finger or stylus across the glass, creates an acoustic wave. These signals are amplified in the controller card and converted into a digital stream of data. The touch location is determined by comparing the data to a stored sound profile, and the cursor position is instantly updated to that location. Ambient and extraneous sounds that do not match this profile are rejected.
"The advantage of APR is that it combines the best of other touch-screen technologies," asserts John Dittig, Elo TouchSystems' national sales manager for North America. This includes the high optical quality, durability and stability of surface acoustic wave (SAW) and infrared technologies; the ability to accommodate finger-dragging found in capacitive technology and the stylus, glove and fingernail activation and low cost of resistive technology. APR is resistant to water and other contaminants on the screen and can be scaled from PDA to 42-inch displays.
APR also utilizes a simple table lookup method, rather than powerful, expensive signal processing hardware, to calculate touch location without any references, and no re-calibration is necessary. Consequently, Dittig notes, the technology is not economically limited to large displays, and VARs can offer their customers the value-added option of migrating to it at the same price they would pay for touch screens that utilize resistive technology. Elo TouchSystems makes APR available in all-in-one and desktop displays, as well as in panel-mounted touch screens for kiosk applications.
Despite its advantages, APR has yet to garner widespread acceptance. However, the tides are rapidly starting to turn as more potential end users begin to understand its nuances, notes Joe Bushey, president and CEO of POS World, an Atlanta-based VAR.
"We're starting to recommend it for most applications, due to its versatility and the high degree of brightness and clarity," Bushey says. He believes a portion of APR implementation has been hindered by the fact that the technology works only with Windows XP and USB drivers. Once other drivers are released, a surge of growth is likely to occur, Bushey predicts.
Like Bushey, Jeff Yelton, who is president of ScanSource North America's POS and Barcoding unit, sees APR technology implementation on the upswing, but also counsels VARs to ensure that restaurant operators, hoteliers and other end users have adequate training programs in place before installation is under way. "It's easy to see the advantage of APR, but employees who have memorized the sequences of older touch screens will need to be conditioned to the way the technology works" based on sound profiles, he explains.
Catching the Wave
Also making news within the touch-screen category is the advent of a wider range of models in different sizes to suit the needs of specific verticals, as well as to meld with varying activation preferences. This product selection includes SAW touch screens, which can be activated only with a finger, feature glass overlays and work via the conversion of electrical signals into surface waves, and resistive touch screens, which have thin mylar rather than glass overlays and may be activated using a finger or any object.
For example, Planar Systems, recently expanded its PT line - the company's PT LCD touch-screen display units now include three SAW models - the 15-inch PT1505MU, the 17-inch PT1705MU and 19-inch PT1915MU. The company's 19-inch PT1910MX rounds out its current suite of resistive touch monitors. Planar has also started to offer a card swipe reader as an accessory to all PT displays or as an integrated feature with the 15-inch PT1550MX and PT155MU, available as resistive or SAW products, respectively.
Matt Walsh, Planar's sales manager, North America for touch monitors and thin-client network displays, says these offerings also incorporate specific enhancements designed to improve end user interface, such as the ability to adjust the monitor position from -5 degrees to 90 degrees (to accommodate user preferences), a rugged desk-stand to minimize accidental tipping, placement of the on-screen display buttons on the side, and an on-screen display locking mechanism to prevent unauthorized setting changes.
Walsh predicts the 15-inch models with integrated magnetic stripe readers will comprise the "sweet spot" of many hospitality applications. "Space constraints are a big concern among (players) in this vertical, and both the smaller size and the integrated peripheral" play into it, he states.
Pioneer POS is also focusing on flexible touch-screen options. Among the company's newest introductions are the StealthTouch-M5 15-inch all-in-one touch computer and also the TOM-M5 15-inch touch monitor, both of which are recommended for hospitality applications. The StealthTouch-M5 can run in thin-client mode, utilizing solid-state disk or compact flash with embedded Windows. It can also be configured to run Windows XP or Vista. The unit supports resistive, SAW and infrared touch-screen technologies. Additional features include Wi-Fi wireless network, credit card reader, biometric fingerprint reader and an integrated customer display.
Similarly, the TOM-M5 has an integrated magnetic stripe reader, biometric reader and customer display, as well as a built-in USB hub that yields four additional USB ports for connections to keyboards, barcode scanners and printers. Mountable on a wall or VESA pole, and available as an all-in-one touch monitor, it, too, supports resistive, SAW as well as infrared touch-screen
"We have seen a lot of interest in infrared because anything will activate it, the cost sits between resistive and SAW," says Michael Flores, director of business development for Pioneer POS. "Additionally, with SAW, there can be a problem of a finger shorting out the signal. This is not an issue with infrared."
Still, other vendors are working to develop resistive touch-screen panels that do not scratch as easily as their earlier counterparts, are sealable and stand up to tough input conditions - including heavy usage at the point of sale. Fujitsu Components America currently utilizes a flexible, transparent touch conductor to provide a more durable, yet cost-efficient touch surface, according to Bruce DeVisser, the company's product marketing manager, input devices. This has been made possible by the release of an organic, conductive polymer film DeVisser deems sufficiently flexible and durable to extend touch panel life by five times. "The manufacturing process is also improved: Instead of being sputtered on, a very thin layer of liquid polymer solution, combined with a water-based solvent, is roll-coated onto the touch panel's polyethylene terephthalate (PET) film."
Although touch screens continue as a major component of POS systems implemented in the hospitality vertical and are also being used for self-ordering and nutrition information dissemination in quick-service restaurants, the roster of applications for the hardware in this segment has begun to expand even further. "Self-service touch-screen kiosk applications are a good example," says Alan Sweet, general manager of Lynbrook, N.Y.-based distributor Metropolitan Sales. He says smaller hotels are starting to seriously consider emulating their larger counterparts in installing touch-screen kiosks for guest check-in and check-out.
"They know consumers are coming to expect it, given the way it has taken off in the airline industry," Sweet observes.
Sweet predicts that in the near future, restaurants will want to implement tabletop touch-screen ordering systems consumers can use to transmit their own orders to the kitchen. Besides time and labor savings, the appeal here will be the possibility of garnering new revenue streams from co-op advertising agreements with local businesses that may be willing to showcase their products and services on touch-screens when they are not in use.
Similarly, Fujitsu's DeVisser notes, some developers are working on applications that meld touch-screen technology with handheld devices used to alert restaurant patrons when their tables are ready. With the technology in place, customers will be able to browse through menus, learn about specials and possibly view co-op advertising.
Penn Center Systems West, a provider of integrated solutions headquartered in Mechanicsburg, Penn., is experiencing success with a touch-screen application that lets bar patrons obtain information about 60 on-tap beers before ordering them, notes Mark Dodson, the company's sales manager. Another touch-screen application that gives kitchen staff menu-driven access to recipes and images of how individual items should be arranged on plates is equally popular. Both applications are built with POSitouch technology.
There's also been an increase in the use of touch-enabled digital signage and large format directional screens for restaurant employees, specifically as it relates to human resources applications. "Restaurant employees will be able to access (via touch screen) their own information and make scheduling requests via touch screen," says Bushey of POS World. "Touchscreens are a great category for the channel, and we're only at the beginning of the application development spectrum."